ILLINOIS (WCIA) — In 2001, defense attorney Kwame Raoul challenged the 50-year prison sentence and multiple felony convictions of Erven Walls in the Illinois First District Court of Appeals, arguing unsuccessfully that the state should have continued investigating the immigration status of Walls’ victim, Yinka Jinadu, an African immigrant who has since become an American citizen.
Raoul, a Democratic State Senator from Chicago, is locked in a close electoral contest with Republican attorney Erika Harold from Champaign to become the state’s next Attorney General. The two lawyers have traded barbs in heated forums about his experience in the court room, or in her case, the lack thereof.
Court records show that in 1997, Walls, Tony Hillard, and at least one other man jumped Jinadu inside the Chicago home of his estranged wife, hit him over the head with a baseball bat, stripped his clothes off, handcuffed him, tied him up in an electrical cord and attempted to drown him in the bath tub after demanding to know where he kept his car and his money. Prosecutors presented evidence at the trial that showed Hillard placed a towel over Jinadu and turned the tub faucet on, turned out the lights and left him for dead.
Hours later, badly battered, Jinadu managed to wriggle free from the electrical tape that Walls used to bind his hands and feet and stumbled outside of the house where a police officer found him “standing on the street, handcuffed, with duct tape on his mouth and an open head wound.”
In a victim impact statement, Jinadu mentioned that “because of this incident, I am not able to visit my family in Africa due to INS,” referring to Immigration and Naturalization Services. Jinadu was authorized by INS to work in the U.S. and showed his work permit to the original defense attorney. The lawyer, whose name was not listed in the appellate court record, peppered prosecutors about Jinadu’s citizenship status, delayed the trial on four occasions, eventually drawing the rebuke of judge Michael Toomin.
“I heard about enough of this. I’ve heard about enough,” Toomin, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, said, scolding the defense attorney. “[Jinadu]’s still married to her. He showed you a card which shows that he’s here legally until next April. He was here legally when this case was called for trial. He’s here legally now, and your [sic] just, you’re wasting a lot of time.”
A criminal defense expert familiar with Judge Toomin’s reputation on the bench said that while “some judges are more mouthy than others,” it was extremely unusual for him to reprimand a defense attorney in such an outspoken fashion.
“It’s pretty unusual for judges to be publicly critical of a defense attorney’s effort to get his client off,” the source said, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely about the case.
Walls was convicted of armed robbery, armed violence, aggravated kidnapping, and aggravated battery, and sentenced to 50 years in prison. The defense attorney filed a motion to reconsider the sentence, alleging that because of his “illegal alien status,” state prosecutors could not accurately portray Jinadu as an innocent victim “that had no criminal history or any drug connections.”
The trial court remained unconvinced and denied the motion. That’s when Raoul, then an eighth year attorney working in private practice, entered the picture and promptly picked up where the first defense attorney left off.
Court records show Raoul argued that despite Judge Toomin’s admonitions, the “State should have researched the issue further.” In her opinion, Appellate Justice O’Mara Frossard was not persuaded by Raoul’s argument, writing that “the State exercised due diligence in investigating and reporting the information provided to it by INS.” Frossard wrote, “Essentially, the only information provided was the speculation that Jinadu ‘may be an illegal alien.'”
At issue was whether or not Jinadu’s legal status had lapsed between the time his estranged wife withdrew a petition for his permanent residency and when he acquired an employment card from INS. That expiration was never proven.
Raoul argued the court should overturn Walls’ conviction and jail sentence because the state did not disclose those details. The appellate court ruling rejected Raoul’s plea, finding that “even if it were shown that he was an illegal alien,” and even if defense had that information in his possession from the very beginning, that “it would not have affected the outcome of the trial.”
“I don’t remember the specifics of the case,” Raoul said on Friday when asked to explain his argument. “I would have to look at whatever briefs were filed.”
Since then, his campaign said he was performing his duty to the client.
“The original trial defense attorney tried to raise this argument, and Kwame was bound to reexamine those issues contained in the notice of appeal,” the campaign said in a statement.
“Is there anything that compels you to make a really crappy argument? No,” the criminal law expert explained, “But you don’t want to risk it,” adding that defense attorneys often use every tool at their disposal to buy time or probe for ‘get out of jail free’ cards.
“Anything that’s even arguable, they’ll throw into the appeals brief because if they don’t, they have waived the issue,” the expert said. “Waiver is a bad thing in an appeals issue. You don’t want to lose because you didn’t raise it.”
Aaron DeGroot, the spokesman for Harold’s campaign, said Raoul’s argument demonstrates an inconsistency in his views on immigration. Raoul has campaigned on a promise to challenge President Trump’s administration in federal courts, especially its more hard line stances on immigration enforcement and deportation.
“Kwame Raoul has shown a disturbing pattern of saying one thing in campaign ads and doing another when voters aren’t looking,” DeGroot said in a statement. “He consistently distracts and misleads voters. That’s why Raoul can’t be trusted.”
“This desperate attempt reveals a lack of legal understanding typical of someone who has never tried a case in her career,” said Aviva Bowen, the communications chief for Raoul’s campaign.
“Further,” Bowen added, “the implication that Kwame’s work on this case somehow demonstrates an insensitivity to the plight of undocumented immigrants is offensive and inconsistent with who he is as a child of immigrants and lawmaker with a history of support for these issues.”
Raoul’s parents immigrated to the United States from Haiti. He says his own father suffered employment discrimination because of his status as an immigrant.
Fred Tsao, the Senior Policy Counsel at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, was eager to defend Raoul.
“Attorneys have an ethical duty to zealously represent their clients,” Tsao said. “The arguments they make on behalf of those clients should not necessarily be seen as reflecting their personal beliefs or their views on matters of public policy.”
Tsao also noted Raoul’s record supporting immigrants, including actions he took to encourage undocumented immigrants to report crimes committed against them.
In 2018, Raoul co-sponsored the Immigration Safe Zones Act, which would help public schools, health facilities, courthouses, and other places craft immigration enforcement policies. Raoul voted for the TRUST Act in 2017, which now bars local law enforcement from arresting or detaining immigrants based on their legal status. Raoul also supported the VOICES Act, which would help immigrant victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault, trafficking, or other crimes, to apply for federal protection.
Raoul has sought to distance himself from some of the more unsavory characters he once defended in court, arguing before newspaper editorial boards that cases were often assigned to him.
In this case, it is unclear how Raoul came to represent Walls, though sources familiar with the specifics in the case said it is not uncommon for the Office of the State Appellate Defender to keep private law firms on contract to handle cases when a conflict arises, such as when there are multiple co-defendants.